The death of tribalism at the next General Election

by Lewis Leach

Slowly but surely, people are turning away from tribal politics.

Despite the unclear lines surrounding Brexit, one thing we have clarity on is the election battlegrounds that have been drawn, whether Brexit is delivered on time or not. If you would have said to me 10 years ago that the Tories would be legitimately fighting for Labour heartland seats in the likes Yorkshire and Lancashire, I would have thought you were mad. But now, we are looking at an election that will be fought between the metropolitans in the cities, and the working class in the towns.

With a clear stance on Brexit, and a paper trail from Boris Johnson to show that he means business either “do or die”, the Conservatives should deliver a blue wave in the traditional suburban and small-town seats dotted across England and Wales. These are the areas where election results have been decided for decades and where Labour has struggled to connect under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Whilst under previous Governments the Northern Powerhouse agenda for example seemed to have stalled, the Prime Minister and his team led by Dominic Cummings are now using it as one of their primary election strategies. This is resonating in the messages, with phrases like “levelling up the country”, “party of the people” and the infamous “taking back control”, coming more into the public consciousness in recent weeks as Brexit (hopefully) draws to a close.

This territory is no longer about a big vision and PR slogans, the Prime Minister is serious and has committed to turbo-charging neglected parts of the country with material change that matters to people’s lives. Building hospitals from the ground up, getting more bobbies on the beat and increasing the national minimum wage. Good old-fashioned electioneering supported by a digital strategy that steers away from ideology.

And its people in marginal seats like Crewe and Keighley who the Conservative party have an opportunity to deliver for. There are lots of people in the North for example who feel like the region has been forgotten and left behind – and the transport network is somewhat symbolic of that.

Labour on the other hand have held support in recent elections in England’s largest cities and university towns, where young, liberal, ethnically diverse voters are concentrated and there was a strong remain vote.

If this trend continues, it could help combat the scale of loses in the North and Wales, as a number of its marginal seats fit this profile. Corbyn’s ambiguous attitude to Europe and his party’s half-hearted confusing embrace of Brexit may pose problems in these seats, particularly where retirements deprive the party of popular local incumbents.

Liberal Democrat contests with Labour are less numerous than those with the Conservatives, but in many remain areas (such as Bermondsey and Sheffield Hallam) there could be considerable movement. The Lib Dems will most definitely be on the attack given how well Labour did among Remainers in 2017, but their strategy is hung on Brexit not being delivered.

What is further discouraging tribal politics is stronger demographics in certain parts of the country. Since 1981, our towns and villages have lost more than 1m people aged under 25, and gained more than 2m over-65s. Cities such as Manchester and London are devouring the young, while the old are increasingly being deposited in towns, leading to a drop in the proportion of working-age people. Corbyn is therefore relying heavily on getting the young metropolitans and highly educated to come out and vote in seats such as Lancaster. This explains calls recently to lower the voting age to 16, and the strong objection to bringing voter I.Ds into the election process.

And arguably, for the struggling towns of the country with older demographics, there is much less to lose, in terms of jobs, cost of living and general opportunities. This, combined with the fatigue of Brexit being tossed around like a political football, should lead to a resurgence of support for the Conservatives in traditionally Labour voting areas. Their only challenge will be keeping the Brexit party at bay if we don’t leave by October 31st.

And with the Parliamentary arithmetic on a knife edge in Westminster, the implications of what happens in Scotland will be profound for the outcome of the next election, with 12 of the most 31 marginal seats in Britain being in Scotland. Which, you guessed it, are predominately struggling towns and communities. People on low incomes are more likely to vote SNP, but their lead among against Labour and the Conservatives has reduced in recent years.

Noticeably, there has been an increase in support for the Conservatives amongst low-income voters. The reported vote share amongst low-income voters was 40% for the SNP, compared to 26% for Labour and the Conservatives. And given the intersection of the Independence and Brexit debates (and the fact that Scotland is well known for its tactical voting), Scotland will be key to any election success.

Overall the question is whether net Conservative gains from Labour can offset expected losses to the Lib Dems and SNP by enough to get the Tories over the line. Brexit being delivered on schedule will obviously have a big impact, but the battle lines are clear, and it will be up to the Conservatives to capitalise on it while they can, and truly change the face of our political landscape.

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